Part of the job of being a parent is that you have to talk to your children. When they ask you questions, you have to be able to provide them reasoned answers or research the topic and return with reasoned answers. One of the questions you do not have to indulge is "Are we there yet?" because by answering it, you deny your children the opportunity to develop and apply their skills of observation and deduction. It also saves you from having to say for the fortieth time, "NO! DOES IT LOOK LIKE WE ARE THERE? NO! IF WE WERE THERE, WE WOULD BE THERE, AND NOT HERE! GOD!" Anyway, the other day rather out of the blue (which is how many child queries arrive), Miss Ten asked me what the phrase "having personal integrity" meant. Instead of consulting some televised hack like Dr. Phil, I thought I would just wing a response. Also, I didn't know where the remote to the TV was at the time.

Me: Hmm. "Having personal integrity" means that your actions -- all the things you say and do -- are a mirror of your values -- the things you believe are important in how to think and behave as a good person in life. That they mesh. That they support each other.

Miss Ten: What's the big deal in that?

Me: Because it's surprisingly hard to do. Sometimes it means you have to stand apart from a group, or even your family and friends, to do what you think is the right thing.

M10: Why would doing the right thing be a problem to anyone?

Me: Not everyone agrees on what the "right thing" is. Like, at all.

M10: Well, then how do you know what is right?

Me: Well, the old Golden Rule is a pretty good thing. "Treat others how you would like to be treated." That works.

M10: Why doesn't it work, though?

Me: (sighing) Well...it does. It mostly does. But I think it's very easy to forget. You have to really work sometimes to be patient and honest and all those other qualities that are helpful.

M10: But, say that everyone is mean. Why would you still be nice?

Me: How other people act towards you shouldn't change what your core values are. If you believe that being kind is a better way to be than being mean, you have to still be kind even in tough circumstances.

M10: But what if it doesn't make any difference to anyone?

Me: I know this is hard for you to understand at your age. What I can tell you is this: every single time you act in a way that isn't true to your values, it kind of puts this little hole in your heart.

(Miss Ten raises her eyebrows in surprise.)

Me: Not literally; I mean that when you do something that you know is wrong or that hurts someone else or is dishonest or whatever, it puts this little notch in you. It's called cognitive dissonance -- something that you know isn't right and sticks around in your brain and bothers you until you work it out. Each time you don't act with integrity, it adds to this pile of experiences that can add up to make you feel really lousy about yourself and the world. You might not even realize where it all came from until one day you think that everything just feels wrong, and then you have to trace back in your mind how that all came to be. If you do your best to be a person with integrity, no matter how rotten people can be or how unfair life can be, you can say, "Well, at least I know I worked hard to be a good person, and I did the best I could for myself and others." It buys you a sense of peace inside that is priceless as you get older.

M10: Do we have any ice cream?

Me: Mint chocolate chip!

M10: OH YAY!!

(painting by Derek Erdman; photo by Kitty Page Amsbry)